Say that word and precious few people can tell you what they are or how they affect your health.
Antioxidants are paid lip service in every supplement sales letter ever written, conjuring up images of metabolic trash floating around in your body, with the ever-vigilant antioxidant as the last line of defense against these “free radicals” and the havoc that they are sure to wreak.
We select our vitamins based on labels that claim they are a “good source of antioxidants” and “fight free radicals.” We buy our fruits and vegetables for that same reason, without really understanding the science behind it.
Even if we’re not sure what they are, we’ve accepted them as a key component of optimal health.
So what exactly is an antioxidant?
Dust off your college biology textbook, because we’re going to get a little scientific, here.
An antioxidant is a term that describes a chemical property that some molecules have. Specifically, the ability to act as an electron donor at the atomic level. An antioxidant is not a certain type of molecule, but rather a trait that some molecules possess.
In one situation, a molecule may act as an electron donor (antioxidant) yet in another may become an electron taker (prooxidant.) The human body and its metabolism is almost infinitely complex, with millions of possible variables at any given moment.
It is nearly impossible to discuss antioxidants without talking about free radicals, too.
What are free radicals and why are they bad?
Our body's trillions of cells are under a constant attack from free radicals. Free radicals are chemical by-products generated by the body as it turns food into energy, and they are capable of damaging both cells and genetic material unless they are dealt with. Free radicals are also generated by exposure to environmental toxins such as cigarette smoke and air pollution. Even exposure to sunlight can cause free radicals to form.
What all free radicals have in common is an incredible appetite for electrons. When they steal an electron from a neighboring molecule, they alter the chemical nature of that molecule. This theft can do everything from changing the coding of a DNA molecule, to making a cholesterol molecule more likely to stick to an arterial wall.
Since free radicals are so common, even being caused by healthy activities such as exercising and eating, our body has evolved a clever way to neutralize them.
Enter the antioxidant.
How this ties together
Antioxidants first caught the eye of the public in the 1990’s, when research began to show a correlation between free radical damage and atherosclerosis, certain types of cancer, and a host of other deadly diseases.
Studies began to link diets low in antioxidant-rich foods with chronic disease and health problems. Clinical trials began to isolate specific substances such as vitamin E and beta-carotene as possible weapons to use in this new fight.
We’ve established that antioxidants are electron donors. They are able to freely share an electron, without having that electron loss alter their biological function.
As free radicals are constantly created in our body as a result of metabolic activities, antioxidants are there to replace the electrons that are lost as a result. This prevents the biological snowball effect that would otherwise occur as the electron-less molecules sought to repair themselves by picking up an electron from another molecule, becoming in essence another free radical.
Sources of antioxidants
As you may have already guessed, the foods richest in antioxidants are fruits and vegetables. The best advice is to simply eat the rainbow, consuming a variety of different types and colors.